Going to the Texas Instruments Developer Conference is like being at the flip side of the Consumer Electronics Show: no wall-to-wall 120-dB audio blaring, no enormous flat screens everywhere creating a disorienting immersion environment, no crowds angling to get a glimpse of a booth bunny, no overhyped “revolutionary” products (or vapor), no media prowling for a quirky, unique angle that will play well on that day's news cycle and soon to be forgotten.
Instead, it's about what it takes to make it happen–hardware, software, system integrators, applications support, and most of all, the ICs–and get it done. There's an earnestness and reality that's actually very refreshing, if you have been numbed by breathless 24/7/365 hype.
In the analog/mixed-signal area, TI is leaving very few niches unchallenged, and they are proud of their #1 overall position in analog shipments (based on independent market research reports), with #1 and #2 spots in many categories. Whether it's relatively unglamorous LDO or LED drivers, or blazing GHz-class D/A converters, precision op amps, and analog function ICs which idle on nanoamps, the message is “come to mother, she'll take care of you from cradle to product maturity.” Like so many others, TI knows there's good long-term money and ROI to be made through analog parts, along with a product life that almost any digital vendor with love to have, but it takes lots of investment in IC processes, tools, expertise, and test. It also takes a willingness to support a very diverse and fragmented customer base which where orders will not be 10k pieces per week, but in to 1000 pieces-per-month range.
The technical sessions showed the span, and an increased interest in analog/mixed-signal applications, either as relatively standalone functions or as enablers. In several sessions on LEDs, you could see that while driving one LED is fairly simple, driving multiple LEDs is not so straightforward. For a cluster with a modest number of LEDs, you have series, parallel, and series/parallel configurations, each with its own drive and matching tradeoffs. When you get to the huge panels with tens of thousands, you have to worry about multiplexing, matching, field replacement, pixel correction, and many other subtelies.
Judging by attendance at the technical sessions, the medical instrumentation area is hot, with bright prospects for growth in low-cost, portable, easy-to-use instrumentation. Before the DSP to process the data and work its algorithm magic, it need to get that data, which means high-performance amplifiers, gain blocks, converters, and filters, all with low-power dissipation when active, and ultra-low power when quiescent. It also means, we learned, to understand how the medical establishment works and thinks and is comfortable in the advanced countries as well as those with large rural, dispersed populations.
Even more chilling were statistics on what the conventional, expensive, high-tech instrumentation which can really show, both for false positives and missed diagnoses. As Damon Coffman of the HD Medical Group said, it's the old maxim: “when all you have is a hammer, every diagnosis looks like a nail.” We are a long way from the goal of the ubiquitous tricorder of Star Trek, he added, but that's where the new ICs, new product designs, and powerful, embedded algorithms are taking us.